A Day in the Life

A blog re-run as a tribute to John Lennon, who was shot and killed in front of the Dakota in New York City on December 8, 1980. Impossible to think it was thirty-three years ago.
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(Click on the YouTube video for today’s soundtrack.)

 

As we drove into the city with our kids over the weekend, my husband and I discussed a recent article in Vanity Fair – an obviously fictitious interview with John Lennon on the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 2010, assuming that he had survived the gunshot wounds inflicted by Mark David Chapman on that crisp December night in 1980, and had traveled along through life, just like the rest of us. He and Yoko would have divorced, and John would have fancied himself a gentleman farmer somewhere in upstate New York, protesting against the fracking industry and Monsanto.

The article was decidedly clever, and I mentioned a few of the highlights to my husband as we drove along West End Avenue, forgetting for a moment that the kids could hear our conversation from the back seat.

We arrived at the parking garage on West 80th Street and stepped out of the car.  My daughter stood next to me and said quietly, “John Lennon was shot in New York City?” She actually looked frightened, and confused.

My nearly nine year-old has been a Beatles fan since she was a preschooler, and although we had told her that only two Beatles were still alive, we had spared her the details of why. In our weaker parenting moments, tragedies like these were presented in a vague, almost ethereal sense — events that had occurred in the unreachable past, and which weren’t  up for discussion. Events that we as parents found ourselves glossing over and evading, as our children reached milestones of speech and comprehension, and could understand what was blaring from the television and the internet and from hand-wringing mothers gathered in clusters together on playgrounds in the hours and days after random, violent occurrences. The subject of 9/11 has been a bumbling conversation every time it’s arisen in our house. I’m not even sure if my daughter fully understands what the World Trade Center is.

Since my husband and I take our children into the city often enough, I sensed that part of her shock was in realizing the danger that occurs on New York City streets. To her, the city means Dylan’s Candy Bar and Central Park playgrounds, the indoor Ferris wheel at Toys ‘R Us and skating at Rockefeller Center, mini-pizzas at Two Boots in the West Village, and shopping for funky pencils and ice cream in Park Slope. As her native New Yorker mother, I’ve failed her — because I’ve suggested fabrications about city life, and because such a candy-coated existence isn’t real in a daily urban setting. If I’m going to be a responsible parent, it’s becoming time to tell her so.

In 1980, I was ten years old and lived in Queens. We five-borough residents had survived our city’s decline of the 1970s, somehow, but we were obviously scarred by it. Even the youngest of us, sporting plaid school uniforms astride banana-seat bicycles, knew a childhood different from those in more affluent parts of the country. Knifings and gunshots, the South Bronx and subway graffiti and looting — those words were all part of our elementary-school vocabulary. We knew why our grandmothers didn’t wear their wedding rings when they went out shopping, or why our mothers told us to tuck our First Communion gold cross necklaces under our Peter Pan blouses when we got on the MTA bus. We were all unwittingly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as such afflicted often are. For us, it was our normal.

I had gone to bed before learning of Lennon’s shooting on December 8, 1980, but the following morning, my mother woke me up early to share the news. She was crying when she opened my bedroom door and said, “Kathleen, John Lennon was shot last night.  He’s dead. Please pray for his soul today.” I can still see her sliver of face hidden by the mahogany-paneled door to my bedroom. I can still sense her shock and sadness, and the fact that she was not my thirty-two year-old mother at that very moment, but the teenager she once was, who had shrieked at the grainy image of all four Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, flickering in her parents’ living room in Queens.

When I think of that morning, I remember that the shooting itself wasn’t what was odd. Only the victim was. Those things happened to us, to ordinary New Yorkers. Not to someone like John Lennon.

My parents didn’t handle such details so delicately. No one’s parents did. People died. Things happened. You got up, shook it off and kept going. We didn’t have support groups and websites and grief counselors back then. We had resilience, I guess, and in these moments, I’m not always sure that my children are of a generation better served by the constant viral outpourings of others. There’s something to be said for remaining separate, and safely detached. Stoicism too often gets a bad rap these days.

When my daughter asked about the shooting, I told her plainly that yes, John Lennon was shot, a few blocks from where we were standing. I had pointed out the Dakota to her several times for its architectural elements, but neglected to mention the crime that had taken place there.  I asked her if she wanted to walk past the building. She said no and didn’t mention it for the rest of the day. I’d like to think that the information is forgotten, but I know that it isn’t. She and my younger son will need to begin collecting such facts, and weather such microchinks to their childhood armor, as the realities of life present themselves.

My children know a different New York City than the one I grew up in, thank God. But if I want them to feel confident in the city, to understand it and be able to walk on its streets as a near-native, and not as a vulnerable, out-of-place tourist, they will have to understand my childhood vocabulary. They must learn this language, if they want to live in any large city. It’s my job as a parent to prepare them for such actualities, but I know that I can’t prepare them for everything. These small moments — when my daughter’s sense of security is somehow rubbed away — are painful for a parent to witness, but it is what must occur. The city she knows is not the city it is, and I’ll need to teach my children that, in times like these.

Sometimes, in my misplaced nostalgia, I long for the grimy, seedy New York of the 1970s. I wonder what Fran Lebowitz is doing with herself these days, now that New York is an amusement park, and a cartoonish, garish, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon parody of itself.  In recent visits to Manhattan, I’ve noticed that common street-smarts have gone the way of the buffalo.  People leave Starbucks with open wallets and fistfuls of bills. And nothing happens to them. We eat fancy sit-down meals in the Meatpacking District now, for God’s sakes, where people once lay dead in the streets, victims of drug overdoses, psychotic johns and muggings.

I still love New York. I hope my children will always share that same fondness as well. But I worry about what the city will become as we face another inevitable economic decline. And as this helicopter-parented generation comes of age, I wonder how we, their parents, have so grievously erred, in spite of our sincerest intentions — what we’ve overlooked, and what we’ve wrongfully shielded them from to make their journey less difficult.

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Dog Park

A friend and I try to meet with our pups once or twice a week at a local dog park. This morning, before the skies opened and threatened a smearing of muddy pawprints on our car seats, we hurried over with coffee cups and poop bags to let our dogs burn off their energy. We look on with limp leashes in hand as they race each other around the perimeter, bark and howl, pant and wag. Some of them try to screw each other. They seem like they’re smiling.

The dogs don’t really listen to their owners when we call them. We yell Louie! and Guinness! and Bentley! and Dexter! embarrassed by their impulsive jumps and intrusive sniffs. They’re smart. They ignore us. Instead, they race and run, answering ancient calls. Then — as if possessed — they suddenly slow up to sniff a tuft of grass near the fence. They stop to squat or raise a back leg, and saunter off, thinking nothing more of it. This is what dogs do. It’s the natural state of things.

My friend and I stand together, motionless, as the fur flies past. We talk about why we’re so tired, why our knees and wrists and shoulders hurt, why everything just hurts. We list possible reasons — words and proper names stated as a set in a series, and which need no further explanation. We don’t even talk about Paris this morning. We can’t anymore.

Still, the dogs circle us — running, running, running — until they’re spent. Then, more sniffing.

My friend wonders aloud about the source of her stresses. Why these pains? Why these aches? She hasn’t even worked out this week. She shouldn’t feel this way. I empathize, and share my own tales of shoulder knots and muscle tension alleviated by acupuncture. It’s like a guitar string strumming inside you, I say, when that needle releases the tension. It vibrates inside me for a few minutes. But I have to keep going back, I say, because it keeps seizing up. I don’t say that I wonder where the energy goes, how it dissipates, and why my learned response seems to dismiss something beautiful and powerful within me.

The dogs crash into each other. If they could laugh like drunk frat boys, they would. Perhaps they do. There’s a surge of barks. Like dogs back-slapping each other.

I tell my friend that I want to throat-punch the people who complain about having to go back to the supermarket to buy that one onion for the side dish that they’re bringing to their sister’s for Thanksgiving — the sister who hosts every year, and who always makes three turkeys and seventeen side dishes for everyone. Then, I talk about the Thanksgiving meal I’m planning. I don’t say that I’ll be making Christmas dinner three weeks later, twice in fact, because my divorced parents still refuse to sit at the same table together. I don’t say that. I can’t anymore.

The dogs circle a new arrival who hesitates at the fence. They crowd him, and howl, and encourage him to run with them, enticing his instincts with another surge of racing. The dog joins in. Tongues wag. More screwing.

Then I tell my friend that I had a conversation with my mother last night about cranberry sauce. I say that it’s never really about the cranberry sauce. It’s about 1974 and what my father didn’t do and about her mother-in-law, who she despised in life and now finds solidarity with after her death, in things like the whole-berry recipe she always made in her Brooklyn kitchen, with precisely half the amount of sugar than is usually called for. She asks if I’ll make it that way this year. I’m making cranberry sauce for the dead, I think to myself.

The rain starts up. The dogs don’t care. We whistle and call for them, but they don’t respond right away. Then, I call Louie! one more time, and the damn dog races toward me, ready and eager for whatever comes next.

The dog falls asleep in the back seat on the drive home. I rub my right shoulder with the fingertips on my left hand, until I feel some sort of release.

 

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Triumph all ye cherubim

In the outgrowth of the “Free To Be You and Me”-tinged seventies, an enlightened young priest in our parish organized “Co-Ed Football Fridays” for myself and the other sixth-grade students enrolled at our Catholic grammar school. In retrospect, it seemed an experimental companion piece to our weekly sex education class, un-ironically taught to us on Friday mornings by a dour, pale nun with a utilitarian hairstyle.

At Fr. Michael’s urging, we were invited to form weekly teams — under his assured supervision — and play touch football in scrappy, mixed squads. We’d gather at 3:30 pm in our street clothes — after having raced home to change out of our Catholic school uniforms — on a swath of dry grass somewhat out of place in asphalted Queens.

Just a few years earlier, as a quiet second grader, I had stood in that same field and sung “Bring Flowers of the Rarest” to a life-size ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary — an annual Marian devotion offered by the Sisters of the Dominican Order, who taught us at Sacred Heart School. We schoolchildren stood in a swirling sea of plaid and saddle shoes, and looked on as the motionless, unblinking Queen Mother was presented with a floral crown by two of the biggest kiss-asses in the grade. I silently seethed as they approached the tottering statue with their offering of peonies, baby’s breath and roses. They were fresh-scrubbed and hot-roller-coiffed, and both wore their First Communion dresses to the ceremony. My stomach twisted and kinked as I realized — this had all been pre-ordained. I wasn’t chosen for this, probably because my mother was the anomalous parent who worked outside of the home, and because my family was often viewed as “shanty Irish” in a predominantly German neighborhood. I felt distant from everyone else, somehow, and ashamed. I wanted to be picked. I wanted to feel special. I wanted to be known.

At the time, I had a Jane Fonda “Klute”-style shag haircut, formed while growing out my mother’s awful mistake of the Mia Farrow-”Rosemary’s Baby”-era, matching mother-daughter haircuts that she had chosen for us when I was in kindergarten. Clearly, I didn’t look holy enough. Or anything even remotely in the neighborhood of angelic, for that matter. Perhaps even worse, as the feeling overtook me — I simply wasn’t the right fit for Our Holy Mother. The sun felt hot and unforgiving, and beads of sweat trickled down the hollow of my back as I sullenly sang:

“O Mary we crown thee / with blossoms today / Queen of the Angels / Queen of the May”

The field itself was an anomaly in our grid-streeted neighborhood — a throwback to the farmland that Queens once was, before it was developed; and to the once-wealthy parish that had purchased the open land in the 1920s. For some reason, we were never allowed to enjoy recess there — probably because our shrieks would disturb midday masses, or the work of the priests in the rectory.

Instead, our playground was the sidewalks and span of blacktop between 77th and 78th Avenues, bookended by the church and school building, and cordoned off by NYPD sawhorses. I smirk to myself now, as suburban parents complain about tired monkey bars, swings and slides that need to be updated on their children’s school playgrounds. Catholic city schoolchildren of a certain era had no such thing. We climbed the chain-link fences like caged lemurs, stood together in tight groups gossiping about an ostracized classmate, and played games of tag or boxball, with chalk and Spaldeens that we’d smuggled beneath our plaid jumpers. We didn’t expect anything different. The streets were always our playgrounds.

Now, on Fridays, we made awkward line formations in the field, and ran defense under the kind tutelage of our parish priest, who looked almost cartoonish to us in jeans and sneakers as he threw passes and formed huddles. We chased each other, grazing boys’ shirted backs with our fingertips and grazing bodies as we zig-zagged through each other. It felt electric and surreal. Much of adolescence does, I suppose.

On those Fridays, I noticed the physicality of Fr. Michael’s actions — the simple pleasure he clearly derived from tousling our hair, touching our shoulders and putting his arm around us in fatherly guidance. To my knowledge, Fr. Michael was never inappropriate with — or abusive to — any of us. But even at eleven or twelve, I could see that his demeanor changed in our innocent physical interactions. The behavior didn’t placate a sexual need — but instead, a primal one. As a human being, he needed to be touched. He needed to feel connected to other people. He needed to be seen, and known. Several years later, Fr. Michael left the priesthood, and married my fourth-grade teacher’s niece. He wasn’t meant to be sequestered, high on the altar, gilded and adorned, separate from sensation or comfort.

At those gentle ages, I, too, wanted to be seen and known. I wanted to know that the stirrings and tenderness that I felt for boys was not wrong, or shameful. I wanted to know that they felt similar things about me. Not in that creepy way that Matthew Belachuk described to me the year before, while singing the chorus of Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited” to me one morning after our teacher had momentarily stepped out of the classroom — with his accompaniment of vulgar hand gestures amidst his unclipped, dirty fingernails.  I honestly thought he was referring to the insertion of a spring-loaded toilet paper holder into a roll of ScottTissue. I didn’t understand.

On one Football Friday, clear and bright in my memory, Timmy Sullivan tackled me when he shouldn’t have. As everyone else walked off to line up for the next formation — he remained over me, blue-eyed and straw-haired, and freckled. He was breathlessly, simply, near me. I can’t remember the exact phrasings he used, but there was a momentary admission of liking me. Really liking me. None of this was aggressively stated, but said out loud in awkward urgency, before we were called back to the next play. I wasn’t frightened or upset. I liked him, too. He could have kissed me, but he didn’t. We were too young. That was going too far. Remarkably, the closeness of him still stays with me, more than thirty years later. I was seen. I was known.

Later that afternoon, I cut my foot on a broken beer bottle that a teenager must have tossed in the field.  The cut bled through the flimsy canvas fabric of my new Nike sneaker, and an irregular red circle formed on its outsole. I had never seen the jagged piece nestled in the tufts of green blades. I had only felt its sting as I ran along the fence.

My friend’s older brother carried me home for as many blocks as he could — his arms hooking the backs of my knees, my arms encircling his neck. He had lifted me up without thought or discussion. I needed to be carried, or the wound would bleed more.

In that anomalous field, I was marked. I was changed. I was known.

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That’s Not the Way It Feels

This morning, while I search through sections of my wallet as I sit in my parked car,  a memory — perhaps more of a feeling — surfaces. I see myself as a teenager in my grandmother’s kitchen, where I sit with my uncle as he sifts through the recesses of his billfold to find a seemingly necessary piece of paper. As he splays the leather wallet’s contents on my grandmother’s kitchen table, I glimpse a faded photo of a curly-haired toddler in a blue flowered dress — me — amongst the scatterings. I feel a warm, enveloping — almost liquid — sense of comfort at the unlikely sight of it. I say nothing, but feel touched at the realization that he holds a small, slim place for me somewhere — albeit most likely forgotten, tucked between store receipts and business cards. He might have simply kept the picture there because he was stationed in the Navy when I was born, and the tangible photograph symbolized something like home for him. It might have been used as a prop to pick up girls in Honolulu bars near the naval base when he was off-duty. It might have been tucked in between dollar bills by my grandmother on a Sunday morning while he was home on leave in 1972 and sleeping off a raucous Saturday night — a mother’s impossible talisman of safekeeping for her son during the Vietnam War. I’ll never know. I was too shy to have asked him why he kept it. I am sure that I was too afraid to learn the truth: the gesture didn’t indicate what I imagined it had.

Instead, in that moment, I decide this: My uncle carried a picture of me. My father did not. In that sharp flick of sadness as to what my father did not choose to do, I found solace in the realization of what someone else had. This, to me, was miraculous: the suffusion of love and tenderness in the actualization of its absence.

I consider this dichotomy as I sit in my car now, with the window lowered to welcome in balmy October air, while the radio plays Jim Croce’s “Operator.” I decide that my uncle was indeed fond of me, and that it couldn’t be helped, because I was a terribly cute kid, and I adored him. I decide that it simply wasn’t my father’s way to acknowledge his feelings towards me, and that he had always disliked the bulky feel of a leather wallet while he drove our stick shift Toyota. He’d raise himself up from the bucket seat and dislodge the billfold from the back pocket of his jeans, and ask me to hold it while he drove. The leather felt pliable and masculine in my hands, and I felt important for being entrusted with its care. I adored him then, too. We were connected by more than I could possibly understand. That bond wasn’t formed by spoken words or tangible items, but through a shared feeling, something similar to what I was feeling now, a sense of us, while sitting in my own driver’s seat. It brought me to the realization of how disconnected he and I are now, and how we both exist on different planes of life and meaning.

I see my father’s worn, malformed billfold in my mind, laid on his nightstand with scatters of change, subway tokens and movie stubs. I think on how diligently he worked to keep the three of us afloat then — my mother and him and me — in a series of small city apartments and secondhand coats. There was comfort in the nightly sight of that curved, stitched leather  – comfort that I’d long forgotten, and strain to sense now.

When people die, and we garner the strength to sort out their belongings in the days — or months, or years — after their death, we cobble together our own brokenness from their effects. We say, “Look — they saved this,” or, “See? He kept this in his nightstand,” or “She tucked this into her purse.” We determine our worth in the random photographs and hand-written thank-you notes used as makeshift bookmarks, in the broken clamshells stored in clasp envelopes in junk drawers, in frayed hair ribbons and dried flowers from wedding ceremonies, and in photo booth strips from long-shuttered five-and-dime stores. We decipher meaning — whether fabricated or true — about them and about ourselves, and about what we represent to the dead and disappeared.

The duality of significance and meaninglessness so often strikes me in these moments. What we think is so, and what never truly, actually was. Who we become, and who we fail to be. How love endures for young men now grown older, and for little girls so wise beyond their years.

 

 

 

 

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#tbt


 
 

When she was so small

When I was thinner

When I didn’t know

When I was younger

When she and I were both so new at things

When my parents were married for thirty-two years

When they could stand together for a picture with their grandchild

When they could

When my love and I lived in northern California

When I wasn’t even thirty-five yet

When I wasn’t afraid to fly to New York

When I wasn’t afraid to fly

When I wasn’t afraid

When I wasn’t

When life seemed more difficult

When it was

When it wasn’t

When my hair was short, pixie-like

When my father disapproved and said I didn’t look like his little girl anymore

When he said nothing but his eyes said as much

When he peered over his glasses and asked when we were moving back home

When he lit cigarettes in silence

When he still smoked

When the sound of striking match heads and the faint odor of burning sulfur comforted me

When he still drank whiskey neat

When I was still his little girl

When she was still my little girl

When she was still his wife

When I was younger

When she was younger

When they were younger

When the maple tree that they kissed beneath on their first date in 1963 was still living

When the branches hung over the sidewalk as green Gothic arches

When it still stood on 216th Street

When it hadn’t died

When it hadn’t been taken down

 

#tbt

 

 

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Music Prompt: Van Morrison — “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River”

In 1988, I was a college freshman, unavailing and alone on a university campus in upstate New York.

When I was in high school, one of my family members had come to the abrupt conclusion that their years of alcohol abuse had taken a toll on all of us, and had valiantly — and unsuccessfully — sought sobriety. This was an isolationist stance, and a self-induced extrication from our shared Irish code — where babies lay limp at the touch of mothers’ whiskey-wet fingertips on their throbbing gums, where toddlers were given sips of cold beer to refresh their forming palates, and where one’s first adolescent taste of alcohol was viewed as a rite of passage by uncles with weathered cheeks and calloused hands.

I’d first gotten drunk when I was two years old, and at the time, no one found that odd. At four, I’d been lifted up on barstools and told to place orders for whiskey – two fingers neat – for my father. Red-jacketed men in midtown locales did my little-girl bidding, and poured out as much. This language of drink was stunted and wrong, it was abusive and cyclical, and it was what we called love. Now, one of my family members stood outside of it, and implored me by their actions to consider the same intention.

I left for college with milk crates and cassette tapes, and with the knowledge — if not yet the understanding — that the DNA of addiction was embedded within me. At the time, I resented the light shed on the subject, the Ala- code words and the Blue Book language of sobriety. I’d had my own pulls of Jameson and drags from Marlboro Lights, at ages too young now to fathom. While other teenagers were unleashed on campus bars with credit cards and hormones, with the stamina of youth and a perpetual thirst — I’d been counseled by my conscience to keep my lips dry, and to feign ignorance at the language of intoxication swirling around me. In my turbulent years of indulgence to follow, this awareness helped to right my vessel. But at eighteen, I begrudged the distance from booze-fueled failure. I wanted it to be mine, too. I wanted to belong to it.

That first semester, I avoided keg parties whenever possible, fearful of my genetic fate. Instead, I spent off-hours by myself at the campus record store. I wanted to lose myself in music. Songs soothed me, and lulled me into believing that I’d be alright.

One day, while I browsed the racks, the insanely cool girl-woman behind the register dropped an album side of Van Morrison’s “Veedon Fleece” onto the turntable, and I was transfigured. I heard “Fair Play,” “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, “Streets of Arklow,” and then — “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River.” I walked up to the checkout area to ask about this music. It was Van Morrison, but one that I didn’t yet know. The clerk smirked at me, with the cool, bored grace of a seasoned upperclassman, and said that she was so happy that I wasn’t asking her about fucking “Moondance.”

“You dig Van Morrison?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I answered — immediately, because it was true. Van Morrison’s scats and his lyrics and his jazz-infused, blues-borne madness somehow made me feel less alone in my head. His music warmed me. But this album seemed to delve deeper into Morrison’s Irish roots. It was inherently Celtic and haunting. It spun and it flowed and it spilled into the aisles and grazed me as it sauntered out the door. I understood it, as I sometimes understood other things — not as something to describe, but to simply feel and know.

I couldn’t buy “Veedon Fleece” at the store that day, because it was a random, beaten-up copy and they didn’t have any others in stock. The album hadn’t sold well in the seventies when it was first released, and thereafter, was poorly distributed. The clerk talked with me more about Van Morrison — seemingly eager to share some thread of knowledge with an eager-eyed freshman who, she must have gathered, had a slim chance at harboring a deeper understanding of music — one greater than the rote memorization of the chorus of “Our House” while sporting a Greek-lettered sweatshirt. I listened intently to her, and held out some semblance of hope that I’d be as sexy and self-assured as she, that I’d be that mercifully cool by the time I was twenty, and that I’d make it out of college in one fucking piece.  The clerk sold me “St. Dominic’s Preview” instead, which I still delight in blasting in my home and my car now, at forty-five.

But that day, that afternoon, that moment of memory — when “You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River” and I met for the very first time. I’ve never forgotten that feeling.

I’ve spoken recently to that family member — who found sobriety again twelve years ago — and wondered aloud why the switch of addiction hadn’t flicked on for me, while being ever mindful of the DNA, the Irish code, the powerlessness, and the possibility.

When you were a child, you were a tomboy
Your sole satisfaction way back in shady lane
Do you remember, darlin’?

And it’s the woman in you and it’s the woman in you
You’re sole satisfaction and it take the child in you to know
The woman and you are one

We’re goin’ out in the country to get down to the real soul,
I mean the real soul, people, talkin’ ’bout the real soul people
We’re goin’ out in the country, get down to the real soul
We’re gettin’ out to the west coast

Shining our light into the days of bloomin’ wonder
Goin’ as much with the river as not, as not, yeah, yeah
An’ I’m goin’ as much with the river as not
Yeah, yeah, right, yeah

Blake and the Eternals, standin’ with the Sisters of Mercy
Looking for the Veedon Fleece, yeah
William Blake and the Eternals, standin’ with the Sisters of Mercy
Looking for the Veedon Fleece, yeah

You don’t pull no punches, but you don’t push the river
You don’t pull no punches, and you don’t push the river
You don’t pull no punches, and you don’t push the river, no, no
Goin’ as much with the river as not

 

 

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Music Prompt: Terry Jacks – “Seasons in the Sun”

It was 1974, and everyone in America was angry and exhausted. Even my young, young parents.

For the first two years of my life, my parents and I had lived in Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood, Inwood — “the Irish ghetto,” my father proudly reminded me, as if to bolster my young marrow. I don’t remember our cramped, three-room apartment on Cooper Street. I only remember being made to understand that it was a difficult time for all three of us.

In 1972, when I was nearly two, my parents decided to move to Queens — to a larger apartment, and to a quiet, leafier street in a safer neighborhood. Years later, I would shock my parents by recalling the details of visiting the second-floor apartment on 74th Street prior to their renting it. I was eighteen months old, and I remembered the cacophony of the loud Italian family who was living in the apartment at the time. There were three or four dark-haired children jumping off their living room couch, while their elderly grandfather sat nearby, yelling at them in a language that I didn’t understand. This is my first memory of my life — sitting quietly on my mother’s lap, and feeling both frightened and excited by the energy surrounding me.

When we moved into that top-floor apartment, my mother said that I ran from end-to-end of its square footage for several days while my parents unpacked their belongings, because I had never been exposed to so much living space. I’d never had that much room to run. After two years of sharing my parents’ small bedroom in Manhattan, I now had my own room — a closet-like space which seemed cavernous to me, and which housed my crib, a changing table and a small chest of drawers.

My bedroom door faced the stairs to the first floor, and some of my most electric memories during that time involve the sight of my father ascending those stairs after his late nights at work or bars. My parents’ friends would climb those stairs on Saturday nights as well, and even though I was supposed to be in bed, their presence would spring me from the prison of bedtime. I’d be lifted up, arms outstretched, to be passed around by my parents; by young women in gauchos and hair parted down the middle, who smelled like flowers and soap and whispered words like “precious” or “sweetie” into my tiny ears; or by young men with cigarettes and thick, black-framed glasses, who drank beer from pull-top cans and let me have sips, who tickled me and let me ride on their backs like they were tipsy circus elephants, who held me upside down by my ankles and danced with me to Santana albums, and who wondered aloud why I was never tired, or wanted to go to bed.

On other nights, I’d feel afraid at the very real possibility of gorillas somehow climbing the stairs, or that the Count from “Sesame Street” and his legion of bats — a segment which I hated, because it reminded me of the Bela Lugosi films my father would watch on weekend afternoons — would swoop up the narrow hallway and scare me. At night, I had called out so often for my parents in fear that my father decided to handwrite a large sign and tape it to my door to placate me: “NO GORILLAS OR COUNTS ALLOWED IN THIS ROOM, BY ORDER OF MOMMY AND DADDY.” Somehow, the words reassured me.

In the summer months, my father wedged a large box fan in my bedroom window, to ease my sweat-curled tossing and turning on hot city nights. During the day, while my mother cleaned or cooked dinner, I’d stand in front of the fan and exhale a loud “aaaaaaaaaaahhhhh” — delighting at the distortion of my small voice as the fan blades moved through the humid air. In the fall and in the winter, my mother would hang plastic popcorn likeness of jack o’lanterns, Pilgrims or red-nosed reindeer as holiday decorations. Their seasonal appearances excited me, because I knew something important was happening — something that we all shared, because so many windows in our neighborhood displayed similar items.

In those years, my parents said that they felt discriminated in our predominantly German neighborhood, and that we were viewed by its residents as dirty, drunken Irish. My father had just given up on law school after two years of night classes at Fordham University — a Herculean, if not Sisphyean — effort while also working a full-time job to support a young wife and child at home. They were both angry about many things — the war, the government and Richard Nixon, the city’s decline, the state of things, their struggles and their poverty, and their small, sudden place in the world.

When I was older, my parents would often tell me that our downstairs neighbor, Mr. Gebhardt, complained about the noise we made upstairs while we lived there. My parents were long-haired hippies, he must have imagined, who entertained friends too late and let their young daughter play at all hours. Once, my mother said, while they blew bubbles with me in the living room, and I toddled after the soapy spheres in my hard-soled walking shoes, Gebhardt banged on his ceiling with a broom handle to complain. The noise sparked my father’s booze-soaked anger, and in a rush of muscle and whiskey and black hair and Marlboros, he leapt over that second-floor railing to bang on Gebhardt’s door and ask him to step outside. He was met, he so often said in the re-telling, by a sad, polka-dot-boxer-shorted old man. My father had laughed so hard at the pathetic sight of him, that he could do nothing but sit on the stairs, doubled over and gasping from hysterics, while Gebhardt stood awkwardly in the doorway, red-faced and weakened.

In 1974, we moved to the other side of the street, to a larger first-floor apartment —  with a kitchen spacious enough to fit a table and chairs, and a sunroom where my mother kept all manner of spider plants and ferns, sprouting from macrame holders. A young hippie couple took the apartment above us, about a year after we’d moved in. They had nothing but a mattress on the floor and square photographs tacked to their living room wall, with captions crudely scrawled in crayon underneath. Once, my father had gone upstairs to help the elderly widow who lived in the two small rooms at the back of the second-floor apartment, and was horrified at the state of the hippie kids’ apartment upstairs. They blasted music from their turntable at all hours of the night. My father banged on the door a few times to tell them to quiet down. Times had changed.

Sometimes, I’d sit on my stoop on warm afternoons, and watch Gebhardt’s house from the other side of the street. I’d look up at the second-floor window where my box fan once sat, and which now was framed by strangers’ curtains and shades. I’d try to recall what the kitchen in that apartment looked like, and wonder to myself if the tall radiator in the bathroom was still the same shade of light green that my mother had painted it — while wearing a light-blue bandana in her hair, to match the wallpaper she’d smoothed on the bathroom walls. The apartment had few windows. She was always trying to brighten things.

Gebhardt was married to a quiet British woman whom he had met during World War II. My mother always liked her. They had one daughter, Annaliese, who was much older than me, yet still wore a plastic barrette in her neatly-bobbed hair. After we had moved out of the apartment, Annaliese was driving their car while her mother sat in the passenger seat, and would be involved in an accident that would kill her mother instantly. I remember being told that the mangle of metal left at a nearby gas station was the Gebhardts’ car. When we first saw the wreckage, my mother made a sharp sound with her breath when we drove past. I was not told that the jagged hole in the windshield was the site where Mrs. Gebhardt had been violently ejected from the car, but I could see the cracks and the shards in the glass, and the damage done. The car sat on the sidewalk for what seemed like weeks, and my mother would wonder aloud, after we’d repeatedly passed it, how Gebhardt and his daughter could bear to see that car while they ventured out in the neighborhood.

I sat in the back seat of our car, which was fashioned without seatbelts like most cars of that era, and felt so frightened and stimulated by such thoughts. “Seasons in the Sun” — that awful, sad, poorly translated song — was always playing on the radio in the summer of 1974, and I sang the verses with burgeoning awareness of what words like death and forever and always meant. Richard Nixon would resign from office at the end of that summer, and my father, so angry at the state of things, would spit at the television whenever his face appeared in the gradient lines of the cathode tube.

 

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What I Did On My Summer Vacation

  • Stopped at a farm stand and bought ears of sugar and butter corn from a man with dirty fingernails.
  • Listened to music relentlessly for several days, then embraced the quiet.
  • Hiked up a mountain and marveled at the world. Hiked back down and marveled at my quadriceps.
  • Baked white chocolate oatmeal cookies with a dash of kosher salt.
  • Read magazines and books. Not many articles in The New York Times.
  • Ate a lobster roll with a friend.
  • Ate French fries a few days later at the same friend’s wise urging.
  • Swam naked.
  • Ate naked.
  • Slept naked.
  • Did not cook naked. Sauce and oil spatter in the nastiest places.
  • Drove several times over the George Clinton Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, which my husband and I now commonly refer to as the “P-Funk Bridge.”
  • Lit candles.
  • Lit incense.
  • Only got lit once or twice in the past two weeks.
  • Gave a reading at a small, independent bookstore.
  • Hugged a friend on a street corner in Kingston, New York, after meeting her for coffee.
  • Walked to Woodstock Cemetery, and stopped at Levon Helm’s grave to pay my respects. Smiled at the handmade wood plaque of “Big Pink” that another visitor recently affixed to the nearby fence.

  • Bought socks with inappropriate sayings on them as Christmas gifts.
  • Ate at a restaurant with my husband and repeatedly waved to a gorgeous nine-month-old girl dining at the next table with her parents, and who, they said, had just learned to wave that morning.
  • Allowed myself the simple pleasure of challah French toast.
  • Went to the movies more frequently in the past two weeks than I have in a year.
  • Saw live music at the Bearsville Theater. Listened when my husband whispered in my ear and said, “Keep up with those drum lessons, kid. You’ve got rhythm.”
  • Drank a lot of root beer.
  • Said “hot damn” a few times. Can’t recall the circumstances.
  • Wore clunky, seventies-ish heels to dinner and looked like hot shit in them. Didn’t trip once.
  • Made love outside during a fireworks display.
  • Puttered in antique shops and realized that I’m officially “vintage.”
  • Wrote letters to our kids at camp. Got texts from our daughter who “found Wifi” near one corner of the campgrounds. Uh-huh.
  • Watched cloud formations take shape overhead and then effortlessly break apart, like Esther Williams and her supporting cast of bathing beauties in 1940s “aquamusicals.”

  • Napped.
  • Drank prosecco.
  • Chose several books with my husband at a bookstore in Rhinebeck, which we are squirreling away for each other as Christmas gifts. Neither of us would remember the choices, we said to each other. That’s the benefit of middle-age. They will be welcome surprises again on Christmas morning.
  • Fought bitterly with my husband for one afternoon about something neither of us can now easily recall. Napped afterwards.
  • Jogged around Cooper Lake. Stopped at intervals to watch the lake ripple, and to hear my heart pulsing in my head.
  • Became teary-eyed at the sight of the majestic Hudson River, and at the grateful thought of Pete Seeger.
  • Ate chocolate-sprinkle-covered soft-serve ice cream on a hot day with my husband in the car. Raced against its melting properties with my tongue to keep the dairy dessert structurally sound, while dozens of chocolate jimmies jumped ship and scattered on my lap. Decided, after exiting the car and viewing the resulting mess, that my porn name should be “Sprinkle Crotch.”
  • Sampled homemade raspberry jam, from berries that my husband picked in our garden and boiled on the stove with white sugar.
  • Scored the last piece of homemade cheesecake from a local restaurant and shared it with my husband at my birthday dinner. Didn’t need no stinkin’ candles. Just two forks.
  • Recalled the joy of driving stick shift, the tactile pleasure of crank windows and the Zen-like static from AM/FM radios, while I drove my ’64 VW through Woodstock, New York. Waved back at people who waved to us and beamed at the sight — and unmistakable sound — of the car.
  • Didn’t get sick of my husband after two weeks together. And he didn’t get sick of me. (Or so he says. I was naked at the time.) Reaffirmed the fact that nineteen years of marriage have been imperfect and funny, both hard work and easier than we imagined, and mostly righteous. Hot damn.
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Music Prompt: The Five Stairsteps — “O-o-h Child”

Whenever I think back on my memories of seventies-era Brooklyn, it always seems to be summer. It’s perpetually hot, and I’m in pigtails. Windowsashes are thrown open, and from the street, I can hear faceless conversations mingling with the clatter of strangers’ breakfast dishes. Not everyone has enjoyed the luxury of air-conditioning yet. The outer borough is dirty and graffitied and financially depressed, but in my memories, the neighborhood glints, in the gleam of playground slides and chrome bumpers, and subway cars rattling across elevated tracks.

In these memories, I’m in endless loops of four, and six, and nine. I’m wearing terry-cloth short sets from A&S, and iron-on t-shirts from Kresge’s, or another mom-and-pop store on the Flatbush Avenue Junction, which feature the likeness of “The Fonz” or the “M*A*S*H” acronym. I’m in backyards and on stoops, shielding my eyes from the sun. I’m waiting on line in front of the Midwood movie theater with my aunt and my cousin, to see “Star Wars” or “The Muppet Movie.” The crank windows of Pontiacs and VWs and Buicks and Datsuns are always open, and passengers toss beer bottles and cigarette butts out of them. Their car radios play the throbbing bass of Philly soul and Motown, the lyrics of Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. I spin on stools at the Kresge’s lunch counter, while I wait for my aunt to end her shift upstairs as the store’s bookkeeper. I smell cigarette smoke everywhere, even outside in the open air. My grandparents take me to Sunday mass in St. Jerome’s church basement, because it has air-conditioning, and because — as I’m often told — my grandfather’s already had one heart attack. We walk all afternoon to shop for rye bread and cold cuts and cakes packaged in white boxes with red twine, and Scott toilet tissue dyed to match the bathroom tile. I step in a lot of gum, and it stretches from my heel in long, sinewy strings to the pavement. Engines gun and backfire. Tires and brakes screech. I am loved. This is another place that I’ll come to think of as home. This is another place that no longer exists.

In 1974, I am playing on my great-aunt’s front porch, with a little girl who lives in the twenties-era, six-story apartment building on the corner. There’s a cement transom over the double-doors of her apartment building, engraved with the name “CHARLESTON” or “MADISON” or “ARCHER.” I can no longer remember the name, even though we so often passed it on our way to and from mass, while visiting my aunt’s apartment, or shopping. When I was small, the moniker seemed to represent something far grander than what Brooklyn had become.

My great-aunt and grandmother live in an attached, two-family house on Farragut Road. They bought it together in 1950. My grandparents live on the top floor, and my widowed great-aunt lives downstairs. She always keeps her curtains closed, and smokes at night in the dark.

The little girl and I are friends because we are both four or five and we are outside and we are little girls and we are thrilled by each other’s existence. Cars drive by, and music wafts out. The Five Stairsteps’ hit, “O-o-h Child,” plays from a large, American-made car. The song often plays somewhere in the early seventies — from car radios and over store loudspeakers and on transistor radios.

The little girl has had her hair sectioned, and its tufts are held taut by balled ponytail holders, in shiny colors of white and deep blue and yellow. The plastic adornments look like gumballs, and I wonder if they taste like them. She asks if I want to wear my hair like hers. I say yes, but know that I have to ask my grandmother first, because I’m that kind of kid.

I open the front door, and run up the flight of stairs to my grandparents’ home on the second floor. My grandmother is standing in the kitchen, and I ask her if the little girl down the street can do my hair like hers. Can she put my hair in rows? Can she?

My grandmother is stern and swift. No, she says. We won’t have that. You can’t wear your hair like that.

She doesn’t say these words out loud, but I still hear them in the strained silence: “like a black girl.” She tells me to stay inside, and not to return to the porch. I quietly obey her.

I am confused, and I am ashamed, because I believe that I’ve done something wrong, but I don’t know what that is. This is my first memory of prejudice. I have never forgiven myself for not defying my grandmother that day, and bounding down the stairs with a Goody comb and a fistful of ponytail holders. I have always held that memory, I think, to protect my little-girl psyche — before I was taught to measure the awful distance, and to see any difference.

 

 

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Music Prompt: Paul Simon — “Still Crazy After All These Years”

I often write at home to the accompaniment of music. Songs can swell my soul, and fill my eyes with tears, at their first wavering notes. Songs help me reach memories that words are not yet ready to describe. Songs offer me the surest sense of place. Songs are my traveling home.

Today’s blog post is the second in a series I’ll be writing throughout the summer — prompts by songs which invoke memories, and which still move and heal me after so many years. Feel free to tell me about songs that have moved you as well.

This blog post isn’t really about Paul Simon, or about the guitar. It’s about a scrappy little girl in 1979 who wanted to play the drums, even if circumstances didn’t allow for such creative indulgences.

She drummed on everything she could find — tabletops and Tupperware containers, school desks and car dashboards, and her pale, Irish-white thighs which peeked out from her pleated Catholic school skirt. Sometimes, her father would grab her hands at the dinner table and beg her to stop. Kaaaaaaaath. Staaaaaaaaaahp.

That little girl was me. I couldn’t carry a tune. Not even if a sherpa strapped it on his back and hauled it for me. But I always loved music. I felt throbs of rhythms in my chest. As a toddler, I spun in heady circles while listening to my mother’s singer-songwriter LPs, long before I ever traveled to Dead shows. I’d liein front of my parents’ turntable speakers, ear to the woven fabric, until someone scolded me for getting too close and damaging my eardrums. I’d gaze upon midtown Manhattan from the back seat of my parents’ car, and match the gait of the city’s pedestrians to whatever song was playing on the car radio — Steely Dan or Linda Ronstadt, the Rolling Stones or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Life itself had a continuous soundtrack. I wanted to somehow express what I heard in mine.

But drums? Out of the question, my father said. Or more accurately, and simply — no. We lived in Queens, in an attached row house with thin walls. We didn’t have money to spend on drum kits, nor did we have the space to store them. So — no, kid. Absolutely not.

Still, I tapped pencils on surfaces until I chipped away flints of painted, yellow wood. I unh-unhed to myself in bed at night while I listened to WNEW-FM’s hard-rock lullabies on my clock radio. Was there any other way for a seventies-era kid to fall asleep in the outerboroughs?

One morning, my fourth-grade teacher pinned a flyer to the bulletin board in our classroom. The mimeographed sheet read GUITAR LESSONS FOR BEGINNERS in hand-lettered caps, with fringed tear-off sections featuring a telephone number to call for more information. When school ended that day, I surreptitiously walked past the board and tore off one of the sections.

My parents strangely said yes to my alternative request, and I was given a child-sized guitar for Christmas that year. No one ever thought to inquire if I’d need a left-handed guitar to suit my southpaw. No one in our family was all that musical to begin with. A guitar’s a guitar, isn’t it? So I learned to play right-hand, because there was no other option.

The guitar teacher was my fourth-grade teacher’s younger brother — a tumble of long hair, mutton chops and wide-wale corduroy chinos. My ten year-old cheeks blushed whenever he appeared at the door. He was sweet and shy and patient with me, never flinching as the acoustic nylon strings buzzed and thumped at my unskilled fingering.

After several months, my teacher told my mother that he’d taken me as far as he could, and that I needed to study with someone more experienced. He recommended Howard Morgen, a guitarist and composer whom he had once studied with as well.

On Tuesday nights after work, my mother would pick me up at the babysitter’s house, and drive to Morgen’s house in Great Neck. She hadn’t even had a chance to return home after a long day at work in Brooklyn, to sit on the edge of her bed, or kick off her shoes. I didn’t appreciate that about her then. I see such naive assumptions in my own children now.

We’d drive along the Grand Central Parkway, and pass the exit for my grandparents’ house in Queens Village. Each week, the “Hillside Avenue/25″ traffic sign made me yearn for them and their love for me, for the comfort of their kitchen and the companionship of their dog, whenever we passed the exit. I still do now, at forty-four, even though they have both passed away, and the house has long since been sold.

I didn’t say much as my mother chattered about her job at the phone company, about my father’s failings, or about a phone conversation she’d just endured with her mother-in-law. Instead, I’d scan the dusk-hued horizon for the sight of Creedmoor, an unmistakable architectural fixture for native New Yorkers of a certain age. As children, so many of us had one-upped each other with the vicious taunt — “yuh mothuh’s from Creedmawh” — to suggest a parent’s court-ordered stint in the well-known psychiatric hospital.

Soon after, I’d catch sight of a grouping of dark brown apartment buildings near the Lakeville Road exit, which seemed to visually delineate the line between Queens and Nassau Counties. Ahead of us lay Great Neck, an elusive mecca for the upwardly mobile middle-class, and where Mr. Morgen resided. It seemed a world away from the tired, graffiti-ed row houses of the outerboroughs.

Mr. Morgen didn’t take children as students, but for some reason, he decided to give me a go. Each week, we’d enter the side door of Mr. Morgen’s house, and my mother would settle into the fern-filled, macrame-bedecked sunroom with a long-standing embroidery project, or a copy of Woman’s Day magazine. While we waited, I sneaked peeks at the other musicians waiting to study with Howard — mostly lanky men with beards, desert boots and jean jackets. They smelled like leather and Ivory soap. At fourteen, I would have fainted at their earthy, city-cowboy sexiness. But at nine or ten, I innocently marveled at the size of their hands and the length of their legs, and at the sounds they could make behind the door of Mr. Morgen’s practice room.

At some point, my turn would come, and I’d enter with my three-quarter guitar case in hand. I’d steady myself on a tall stool and will the glossy guitar body not to slide off my uniform skirt. Even then, I berated myself up for not knowing things, and for my imperfections. Mr. Morgen was not always patient as he schooled me on v-strokes and 3/4 time, and it bothered me when I disappointed him.

Still, we soldiered on through the Mel Bay book series together, until I was granted the Holy Grail of music lessons — instructions to purchase The Beatles songbook at a music store, and bring it to the following week’s lesson. Mr. Morgen taught me “Eleanor Rigby” and “Michelle,” “Blackbird” and “Hey Jude.” He taught me more than that, I now realize, but at ten — my young life was measured in chord progressions and turns of pages.

Howard Morgen was, by his own preference, a jazz guitarist, and insisted that I learn in the finger-picking style. That meant no guitar pick, trimmed nails on my left hand, and longer, shaped nails on my right. One day, he placed a classical guitar songbook in front of me, and told me that we were taking it up a notch. He arpeggioed the fuck out   of me for a r, all while schooling me in chord construction and variation. I lumbered through the notes, never appreciative enough of his teaching, and resentful of the throbbing pain on my fingertips afterwards. I wasn’t even suffering for the Beatles, I remember thinking. I was suffering for chamber music.

After several years of studying with Mr. Morgen, we moved to Connecticut, and our lessons came to end. I don’t remember exactly what he said to me at our last lesson. I only recall feeling encouraged, in the way that only the finest teachers can make you feel.

Two years ago, I picked up the guitar again when my daughter took lessons — still preferring the fingerpicking style over that of using a plastic pick as a middleman. Like me, she’s often too shy to play in front of other people — but I recently played a Beatles song for her, and she marveled at the style I used to strum. I told her about Mr. Morgen, about the age I was when I first picked up a guitar, and a little bit about the way things used to be.

I recently found a YouTube video of Howard Morgen playing guitar — one in a series that must have comprised a teaching video he had filmed a few years earlier, before he passed away in 2012. I hadn’t seen my teacher in nearly thirty years, but his playing was unmistakable. He had arranged Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” in his own gorgeous style, and I watched his face, still happily smirking as he hit certain notes. Paul Simon, I would later learn, hadonce been one of his students as well.

We fear that our lives come to abrupt and meaningless ends when we die, and that we are surely, unequivocally mortal. But our reach is so uncharted, so truly unknown. Our memory lives in others who have grazed us, in ways so vast and small.

I am nearly forty-five, and I still own an acoustic guitar. I still beat myself up about things, but sometimes, I allow myself the simple pleasure of playing — in the very same way that Mr. Morgen taught me. Sometimes, I even do that cool thing where I lightly touch the E string and pull my fingertip back just as I pluck it, and the open note sings. And it feels just as good as the first time I could finally pull that off for him in a music lesson. I called for drum lessons this week, too. Because I owe it to that left-handed kid who learned to play a right-handed guitar. Still crazy after all these years.

Thank you, Mr. Morgen. I’ll never forget you.

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